Great Traditions: King’s Cambridge and the Vienna Philharmonic

by Glenn on January 2, 2017

I don’t have many consistent traditions in my life, but for years now, two events have served as cultural bookends for my year. One is secular, the other is sacred. One comes at the beginning of the year, the other at the end.

At the end of the year is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge on 24 December every year.

At the beginning is the Vienna Philharmonic’s Annual New Year’s Concert.

Both of these events have been going on annually since before I was born and I hope I may enjoy them for the rest of my life.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

The service begins at 3:00 pm in England, which means tuning in at 7:00 am here on the West coast of The United States. I’ve grown accustomed to listening through BBC Radio 3, but I think our local classical radio station, Portland All Classical, 89.9, carried it this year.

Coming as it does on the Eve of Christmas, this service provides respite from what has constituted “music of the season” for the past several weeks in both the world of commerce (I think I could go the rest of my life without hearing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”) and the church (where for the first week of Advent we sang the Gaither’s “Because He Lives” for reasons that aren’t really clear).

Among the things I appreciate about the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is the complete absence of commercials and stars. I can’t imagine we’ll ever hear this announcement as the program begins: “Welcome to the 2017 Festival of Lessons and Carols, featuring Harry Connick, Jr., presented by Land Rover.” (This is not a dig at either Harry Connick, whose Christmas CD’s are played regularly in our home throughout December, or Land Rover, which makes vehicles I would drive with no hesitation.)

This is, however, a church service, presented in its entirety without interruption or commentary, and which has been going on since 1918. It’s remarkable that you hear this service on what I think amounts to British public radio.

The richness of the service comes a number of ways:

1. You have the story of God’s redemptive purposes for people as seen through nine Biblical texts.

2. You have potent metaphors to consider—Christ the rose and Jesus the apple tree.

3. You have that other-wordly quality of the singing of an all-male choir.

4. You are invited to participate in an accessible way, i.e. the music is sung in keys that normal humans can sing in.

I don’t love every aspect of the service. Sometimes the music is a bit “out there” for me, although I’ve been listening long enough now so that songs that didn’t grab me at first listening I now find a little haunting in a good way when I hear them again. One of these is “The Lamb” by Richard Tavener, using the lyrics of the same-named poem by William Blake.

And sometimes the underlying theology is a little out of joint with my own views—for example, “Adam Lay Ybounden,” which in my reading seems to deify Mary.

Adam Lay Ybounden

Then again, this is music from the fifteenth century, before the Church of England was created out of political difficulties between Henry VIII and Pope Clement VII, so one might expect a rather high view of Mary. (Is there a certain irony in a service that seeks to honor Mary but limits the participation of women as leaders of that service to a reading or two?)

Of course, it’s hard to separate tradition surrounding Christmas from the actual incarnation of God in the divine/human Jesus. This year they sang what I think is one of the most beautiful of carols, “In the Bleak Mid-Winter.” There’s a version by Gustav Holst, but I’m partial to the one with music composed by Harold Darke, which they sang this year.

While there is no critiquing Christina Rossetti’s poetic gift, you don’t want to overthink this carol. On the one hand you’ve got the Biblical narrative of shepherds out under the stars watching their flocks by night and this song begins, “In the bleak mid-winter / Frosty wind made moan, / Earth stood hard as iron, / Water like a stone …” You wonder what on earth those shepherds were doing with sheep outside in those kind of conditions?

Most likely Jesus wasn’t born on December 25. But it’s appropriate in a way to celebrate the birth of “the Light of the World” on one of the darkest days of the year.

The Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve Concert

Which version of the program do you want to watch? It’s a very different experience to watch what we see in the United States on Great Performances through PBS vs. what others can see around the world.

For years I watched this concert on the local PBS station of wherever we happened to be living at the time. I remember Walter Cronkite year after year hosting this concert and now look forward to the luminous Julie Andrew’s narration.

Unfortunately, this PBS version is a greatly abbreviated concert, more a highlights of the New Year’s Concert. It’s not bad, but you wonder what’s wrong with us in the States that we can’t sit down and watch a concert from start to finish without a celebrity to keep us engaged.

One year I found a stream from Austria, which showed the entire event, including a very interesting musical interlude for the intermission. I found one again this year (with a  Spanish announcer, just to keep things interesting). This year’s intermission was a short feature titled, “The Rhythm of Vienna.” Lots of beautiful artists and artisans and dancing. When it was over, I was ready to move to Austria, which was when I noticed the film was produced in part by the Vienna Board of Tourism. Good job there on creating the right effect.

This concert has an always the same and never the same aspect to it. The Strauss family’s music is at the core. But since 1987, the same conductor hasn’t been on the program two years in a row. This was Gustavo Dudamel’s first time to conduct this concert. Also new were eight pieces that had never been performed in the previous years.

From my observation, Dudamel is one of the easier conductors to follow. Success with this music means managing transitions well. Some conductors stretch the transitions (Herbert von Karajan and Franz Welser-Möst come to mind) so that you wonder how the orchestra finds a rhythmic pulse. Dudamel keeps things moving. There’s plenty of ritardando, just not too much, and when it’s time to move again, he lets the orchestra know and they get going without fuss.

Dudamel conducted from memory, which I always find extraordinary (compared with, say, Maris Jansons, who was very much in his score).

While each conductor brings their own energy and nuance to the music, the heart of these concerts is the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, which is sublime.

And the orchestra looks good. Fantastic, actually. They look as elegant as they play. That look was enhanced this year with a new uniform.


Both of these concerts are on my bucket list to attend live, but I am grateful that both institutions distribute to a wide audience.

Both events have overtones of war. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was a response to The Great War (1914–1918). The Vienna Philharmonic (now in its 175th year) had a Strauss concert in 1939, and then the annual tradition began in 1941, clouded over by war and the Nazi occupation. Happily, the traditions are greater than, respectively, the ugliness that they were in response to or created in the midst of.

It’s good to live life within these two bookends each year.

Prosit Neujahr!